At Starbucks, Men Open Up About the Stigma of Pumpkin Spice Lattes

August 28th marks the beginning of the annual sale of this iconic fall flavor. But the drink's yummy autumnal blend appears to be haunted by sexist sentiments that men are finally ready to defy.

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Sep 6 2017, 8:19pm

Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Inside Men is a Broadly column where we embed in male communities, to report back on the inner workings of men's relationships to better understand masculinity today.

Like it or not, today marks the annual introduction of Pumpkin Spice into the American diet. Starbucks cafés across the nation are sprinkling the enigmatic blend of autumnal seasonings into lattés and marketing to the masses. (In 2015, Forbes estimated that Starbucks makes $100 million annually on the treat.)

Pumpkin Spice, as a latte flavor, was initially developed in 2002; in the years since it was first spawned, it has become a towering cultural phenomenon. In the process, it's become closely entwined with the concept of "basicness," described as "the Taylor Swift of the seasonal drinks world." Culturally speaking, the beverage inspires the image of girls who are shin-deep in Uggs, taking their SUVs through Starbucks drive-throughs to get their fix.

Like all towering cultural phenomenons, Pumpkin Spice has inspired extended cultural commentary. In 2011, a brave blogger first posed the question of the season: "Should a guy be embarrassed to order a Pumpkin Spice Latte?" (His friend, he explained, had insinuated that any man who orders the autumnal treat lose ownership of his "MANcard." Reactions to his query were mixed.) The hot drink, it seems, is inexorably coded as feminine—two separate college newspapers have argued that Pumpkin Spice Hate is sexist, prompting actual national debate.

But times are changing, and even Axe-brand deodorant is now aware that gender is a social construct. So how do men feel about Pumpkin Spice today? In honor of the season, and to better understand our nation's gender minority, Broadly went to meet men back where Pumpkin Spice began: Starbucks.

As I order a tall pumpkin spiced latte with whipped cream, the barista tells me that, in his experience, the consumers of Pumpkin Spice are split "about fifty-fifty" between men and women. However, he says, guys are definitely more low-key when they order it: They speak more quietly and their eyes get shifty, he claims.

Will, a business man in his thirties who was sitting outside the café, shares his thoughts: "If I go in there, I'm ordering a hazelnut or French vanilla coffee, so I don't care," he says with bravado. However, Will confirmed that there are men who "think some drinks are more feminine," which adds an unnecessary layer of social drama to the mundane daily ritual of coffee consumption.

For many men, it is plainly obvious that Pumpkin Spice does possess feminine qualities. Rich, a mid-twenties man with a beard, is sitting at a table inside the chain coffee shop. He believes Pumpkin Spice is, of course, a "girly drink." However, he feels that, in this era, men are no longer willing to be deprived of pleasant beverages because of outdated gender stereotypes. "There is a stigma," Rich insists, but if men want Pumpkin Spice, they'll drink it—stigma be damned. "I think it's more common these days for men to be more confident with [drinking feminine beverages] than avoid [them] because they know it's a 'girly drink.'"

Read more: Bros React to Seeing the Female Version of Themselves

As I write these words, hot Pumpkin Spice is lubricating my lips. A small cup is sitting beside my laptop. Sprinkled powder has begun to meld into the dense whipped cream, like a sea of men sinking into the encompassing foam of femininity. In line to order, one man named Mekhi tells us that he has never had Pumpkin Spice. According to him, some beverages are simply "too fruity" to be seen drinking—namely, the infamous Unicorn Frappuccino. "I'll be honest, I wasn't going to try that because it was…" Mehki paused, searching his mind for a non-offensive word, before settling on "unicorn–y."

He feels the Pumpkin Spice latte has a similarly "cutesy" name, which makes him hesitant to buy in. However, it seems our conversation had an impact on Mehki—he told us he just might order a Pumpkin Spice latte today.